Blog Post 10-24-17

Innovation in Public Service

John closed his laptop and sighed. Sitting in his in-box was yet another memo from headquarters asking managers, basically, to “do more with less.” It wasn’t worded exactly that way, of course; senior leadership knew everyone was tired of hearing those words. No, the memo said something about the need to get creative and invent new organizational structures and processes. And as usual, there was very little in the way of suggestions for how to do that. John shook his head in frustration and opened his laptop. “Might as well get back to my 300 other emails,” he thought.

Leadership is about learning and expanding our organization’s horizons. The world moves too fast for leaders to consider maintaining status quo. We must focus on leading positive change, and that requires innovation. This is particularly true in a time when resources are dwindling but requirements are not. To make things more challenging, large hierarchical organizations sometimes seem designed to thwart our efforts to innovate by imposition of bureaucracy, outdated policies, and entrenched ways of thinking. It’s easy to see why someone would just want to put their head down and say, “good enough.”

Being a leader, however, means not being satisfied with the status quo. We must acknowledge that despite the limitations placed upon us, we still have an obligation to serve our organization, its mission, and the people we work with. We must further acknowledge that many of the limits we face are self-imposed. How often have we found ourselves saying, “I’m just not a creative person” or, “I’m too busy getting the basics done to try to think outside the box.” While an understandable human response to difficult challenges, this self-limiting mindset serves to diminish our power to influence and serve.

In truth, creativity is not some special talent only bestowed on famous inventors and tech company founders. We can all learn to think a little differently by understanding some basic facts about innovation:

• Innovating is, quite simply, finding better ways to do things
• We find better ways to do things by asking the right questions and being open to
learning
• There are many simple techniques that can help us get out of our usual ruts and
see things from a different perspective

Framing questions more effectively is a simple tool we can all learn to use. Instead of, “How do we do more with less?” John might ask, “How do we do less?” or, “How can we expand our impact?” or, “What’s the larger purpose this particular goal serves; can we achieve that larger purpose a different way?” To say that we don’t have time to ask questions and frame things differently is like saying we don’t have time to stop at a gas station for directions so we’re just going to keep going in circles, lost. Effective leaders know that making time to pull their heads up from the email in-box and ask good quality questions is a priority, despite how challenging it may be.

Effective leaders also approach issues with the confidence that an answer can be found. Colin Powell said, “Optimism is a force multiplier,” meaning that an optimistic leader brings an energy to the work that imbues employees with the desire to serve well and leverages their influence and ability to bring about change.

Despite the obstacles our organizations may seem to put in our way, most want and need their leaders and employees to be innovative. We need to move beyond the mindset that there are too many barriers to overcome. In fact, the limits we struggle under don’t bind us but often lead directly to innovation. There’s a reason the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” has been around for generations.